Minnesota has the nation’s fourth-highest labor force participation rate, the fourth-highest workforce educational attainment level and the ninth-highest average household income. But comforting economic rankings don’t pay the rent — as many recent college grads can attest.
Consider the experience of the Class of 2012 in the two years since it emerged from two- and four-year degree programs, as quantified by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and presented earlier this month to the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce.
Under the headline “Tough times for many recent college graduates” came these dispiriting stats: Two years after graduation, the median hourly wage for two-year degree holders was $16.35. For four-year-degree workers, it was $19.30. By comparison, DEED analyst Cameron Macht noted, the hourly full-time wage needed to provide a minimal standard of living to a “partnered” adult with one child is $19.37. For a single parent with one child in Hennepin County, it’s $25.31, according to DEED’s cost-of-living calculator at www.mn.gov/deed.
There’s also a discouraging kicker: “The majority of the jobs held by recent grads are not full-time, and they wouldn’t support a family if they were.”
Minnesota has emerged from the Great Recession with enviable aggregate assets and a looming shortage of skilled labor. Yet underemployment — defined by DEED as working at a job that requires less education than one has obtained — is widespread. Last year, DEED officials said that as many as half of the state’s workers were underemployed. Some are in that position by choice. Many are not — and many of those workers hold recently minted college degrees.
How is it possible for a skilled-worker shortage and college-grad underemployment to simultaneously characterize the current Minnesota economy? DEED’s data point to an answer: Today’s economy demands more graduates in science, math and technical fields — and fewer who majored in the humanities — than Minnesota colleges are producing.
DEED found that two-thirds or more of the 2012 four-year-degree grads who majored in engineering, computer science and business management were working full time in 2014 and earning average salaries of $45,000 to $60,000 a year. But fewer than a third of grads who majored in visual arts, history and group studies were working full time, and their average annual incomes were below $35,000 — in some cases, well below.
We trust that some grads who chose those less remunerative fields did so fully aware of the lesser salaries they were likely to earn. But we suspect that others were caught up in an idea that was prevalent not long ago — that any four-year college degree, in any field, was a ticket to a good job. They may have lacked reliable information about the earning experiences of recent grads in their fields.
Today’s students and the adults who advise them should know that such Minnesota-specific information is only a few mouse clicks away. DEED and the state agencies that oversee K-12 and higher education have created an interactive Web page (http://tinyurl.com/o7gf888) that reveals the earning power of several dozen college majors at the certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate degree levels.
That tool should be employed in redoubled efforts by parents, educators, employers and students themselves to better align the output of Minnesota’s colleges with the needs of today’s employers. Academic and career counseling has too often been an educational afterthought in this state, as the state’s chronically high student-to-guidance counselor ratio in high schools attests. One-on-one help for students is needed now more than ever, and ought to be available to students younger than ever.
For the millennial college grads who are struggling today, a somewhat hopeful word comes from researchers at the New York Federal Reserve. While the Great Recession was unusually hard on their generation, high underemployment of recent college grads also characterized the previous two U.S. recessions. The phenomenon lessened as past recoveries unfolded. It also has tended to ease as college graduates move into their 30s. This recovery is likely to follow that pattern.
But the New York Fed also reported that underemployment among college grads has been trending higher in this country since 2000. More than in most other states, prosperity in brainpower-dependent Minnesota in the next quarter-century will depend on reversing that trend.